Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Mary King's Close, II : The Tour

A recently posted plastic sign above Writer's Court leads one to the tour base for The Real Mary King's Close -- which today is the only way to access what remains of this famous site. In fact, the tour actually goes through the underground remnants of about four closes total: Mary King's, Stewart's, Pearson's and Allen's.

One is not allowed to take photographs on the tour (and, honestly, the spaces one sees are so dark, I don't think very good pictures would be possible even if you could take them.) Since these "closes" are really the underground remnants of closes that were preserved when newer structures were built overtop, the effect of the visit is a bit like wandering around in someone's empty basement for an hour. A very historically interesting basement.

A tour guide outside the building, attracting visitors.

Cheerful guides in theatrical-grade costumes, portraying historical personages who were documented as living in the close during the 17th century, lead groups of about 15 visitors at a time into a little doorway through the giftshop. Tours seem to occur about every 30 minutes in the summer. The website advises booking in advance but I didn't have a problem, as a lone traveler in July, just walking in and buying a ticket. One of my local contacts tells me that the Halloween night tours do get booked up months in advance, though.

A similar room to the ones at the tour of The Real Mary King's Close. This picture was actually taken at the City of the Dead Underground tour.

After descending a staircase, one begins the tour of Mary King's and surrounding closes by being herded into a little room with some bits of replica furniture placed inside. The guide explains that this room is actually a little larger now than it would have been at the time of its inhabitation due to some modifications required by overhead construction, but that it's the equivalent of a poor-man's entire family home. Old time sanitation and lighting practices are explained in case anyone in the group might be unfamiliar with the subject. Suddenly a scream is heard some rooms away: the guide (with a sort of bad-actor's air that lets you know this is all part of the show) apologizes and says he needs to check what the problem is: he returns a moment later with a sobbing peasant woman and explains her husband was just murdered.

After this, the group is led to a room with what I perceived to be some rather troublingly badly-crafted statues, depicting a murder scene. The guide tells the story of what is portrayed: a murder which occurred during the 16th century (?) (the costumes on the statues were certainly 16th century) whereby a man was killed by his mother in law. Both she and her daughter, the victim's wife, were convicted for the crime and were sentenced to be executed by drowning in the old Nor' Loch; however, the daughter was able to have her sentence postponed due to pregnancy, and took the opportunity to successfully flee Scotland.

Next comes a little room where projected silhouettes of persons who lived in the close are shown and described. This is where you learn what info is known about Mary King, as well as some tidbits about other notable folks like the local tanner, the rich doctor, and so on.

Further rooms the group visits include one fitted with statues portraying a family sick with plague, an empty room which was once a cow barn and slaughterhouse, a very old room with its original plaster (which was supposedly made from the ashes of human plague victims -- I don't know how anyone would test for this or why anyone would have found this a desirable substance to use), and a large peep-hole in a wall through which you can see an underground area that supposedly dates to the 1100s. Relevant sound effects are played, kind of randomly, over speakers throughout the rooms.

One particular room -- in which the tour group is "quarantined" after visiting the plague room -- serves as a little theater, in which a reduced version of Sinclair's story of the haunting in Mary King's Close is narrated, with visual aid projected onto the walls. The story as told was kind of lame, and having since read the full account I think they maybe should have picked and chosen better parts of it to use. "...and then, two years later, he died" isn't really that great of an ending to a supposedly scary story. The filmmakers also seemed to not actually want to portray the ghostly subjects that were seen by the couple in the tale (maybe because the floating head and floating arm wouldn't seem spooky enough?) So the result is mostly a story about two people praying, merely told in a spooky voice.

Also of note is the famous Annie's Room, the place where the Japanese psychic (whose name wasn't given on the tour but whom other sources reveal to be Aiko Gibo) was said to have sensed a little girl's ghost. A mountain of toys sits against a hole in the wall, and a little box of coins is out which the guide explains will be donated to a children's hospital, and he entreats the visitors to add toys or coins by threatening them with perpetual hauntings if they resist.

A public domain publicity photo of the famous close.

The actual remnants of Mary King's Close proper are the very last part of the tour. These ruins resemble a very tall hallway, but sloping downward rather steeply. It is decorated with hanging laundry in an effort to demonstrate how the place would have looked when it was a bustling street. For £6 one can have a special photograph taken here with the guide. A final room is pointed out, but due to its decaying foundation and its being decorated with arsenic-based paint the group is not actually allowed inside: it was the home of the final resident of Mary King's until he was paid to leave, to make room for the construction which ultimately encased the place. A little further up the slope, the last business to have operated in Mary King's is revealed: a sawmaker's shop. At that, the group is led back up the stairs and out into the gift shop to collect their photos or to buy some Scottish tourist junk.

I'd been a little reluctant to take this tour due to the £12.95 ticket price (that's more than $20 US) but one of my Edinburgh contacts had recommended that I should go through with it if I had the money. Being a fan of architecture and of the history of old streets, I think it was probably worth it; though if I'd done the same tour 10 years ago when I first heard of the place and I was more interested in the ghosts and hauntings, I think I might have been disappointed. In those bygone times I'd have probably rather preferred a tour that just consisted of guides taking you into the close and telling ghost stories merely to creep you out.

If you are really in it for the history, I recommend also doing the John Knox house down the street as an accompaniment; Mary King's focuses mostly on the situation of the poor in the 16th and 17th centuries due to those quarters being the main survivors, whilst the Knox House reveals more of the middle class lifestyle. (Also notably, the real John Knox actually lived in Warriston's Close -- the place you have to enter to get into Real Mary King's Close.)

Thus with the understanding that Mary King's Close is above all a historical tour, it's a fun event to pass some time as a tourist in the city of Edinburgh. It is also one of the few attractions that is open late, making it a nice pre-pub or after-dinner passtime in the area.

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